Ways to speed up an aging laptop

Yesterday Lifehacker did a feature on laptop tweaks and upgrades, that basically came down to reinstalling the OS, adding memory, and upgrading to an SSD. All of those are good things to do of course, but there’s more you can do. I posted a response there; I’ll elaborate a bit here, where I have more room to do so.

There are tons of links here to previous content I’ve written; optimizing aging machines is a recurring theme for me. I’ve been writing on that topic for 11 years now.

Defrag

Yes, you still need to do it, assuming you have a platter drive. MyDefrag (mydefrag.com) does a much better job than the one Microsoft provides, and it’s free. To defragment your pagefile and system files, see my earlier post here. All of the utilities are free. MyDefrag is the successor to JK-Defrag, mentioned in the other post.

How often should you defrag? I think for most people, a through defrag 1-2 times a year is adequate. Doing it monthly shouldn’t hurt, but it’s probably overkill, unless you create and delete tons and tons of large files. The people who defrag daily or weekly probably are spending more time defragging than they’re saving.

This is purely anecdotal, but I did desktop support for about a year alongside another guy who handled one department because he was management’s golden boy. He was obsessive about defragging–he had the systems doing a defrag every boot. This made booting a 20-minute ordeal (or worse), and his users constantly had problems. Any time he wasn’t around and people called me for help, I got an earful. I think his daily defrag routine did much more harm than good.

Optimize the registry
The difference it makes is debatable and really depends on what state your PC is in, but after you run CCleaner and the like, run NTRegopt. This will dump the empty space in the Registry, and unlike many commercial registry “optimizers,” it does no harm. Also free.

Some pundits will tell you these tools make a minimal difference, and on a fresh build and especially on the top-of-the-line hardware most of them run, they’re probably right. But I’ve seen NTRegopt cut 20 seconds off a system’s boot time, and who wouldn’t want that?

Firefox

If your main complaint is that Firefox is slow, here’s a nifty trick with its error console. The difference is unbelievable, if you’ve been running Firefox a while.

Visual effects

If you haven’t done it already, go into your system properties and select “best performance” to turn off all the visual effects. If you’re a bit low on CPU, video, or memory prowess, that simple change can help.

Change your antivirus software

A lot of the antivirus programs are notorious resource hogs, so just uninstalling Norton/Symantec Antivirus or McAfee Antivirus, particularly if you’re running an older version, and replacing it with Microsoft Security Essentials can really help.

I’d also suggest running a bootable antivirus live CD, such as Bitdefender, just to get a second opinion, in case some malware slipped by your defenses and is slowing things down. Nothing catches everything, so second opinions are always good.

Hard drive upgrades

On the hardware front, if you can’t afford an SSD, replacing the hard drive with a bigger, faster one still helps. Chances are your laptop didn’t come with a high-performance drive, and even if it did, today’s performance drives are better. Given an old drive running at 7200 RPM and a new one running at the same rotation speed, the new one will be 20% faster due to increased platter density. Every year, they pack more and more data per platter, and that increases speed, because each turn of the disk causes the head to pick up 20% more data than an earlier generation drive.

The 20% figure is a bit arbitrary of course. And if you replace a 5400 RPM drive with a new 7200 RPM drive, the difference will be bigger.

Then again, the hard drive is always a laptop’s big bottleneck. I still think an SSD is the best upgrade you can do, and now that 120 GB drives cost less than $50 and 240 GB drives often cost $75, they’re easier to justify, and you never need to defragment them. I recommend Crucial, Sandisk and Samsung drives. Lately Sandisk has been giving the best value for the money, but all three companies make well-performing, reliable drives.

4 thoughts on “Ways to speed up an aging laptop

  • January 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm
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    If the laptop is too old for a SATA intel SSD, or if it requres a really tiny non-standard drive form factor, Runcore makes IDE SSDs in all kinds of odd form factors. I bought one for my spouse’s old thinkpad. Yes, the IDE bus doesn’t allow the lightning fast speeds an SSD can deliver, but the random access speed boost has been very noticable. And as a nice bonus, the SSD runs cooler, so the underside of the laptop gets less annoyingly hot.

    NB: Don’t order from runcore.com; order from their US distributor (mydigitaldiscount.com) and you’ll get a better price and faster service.

    • January 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm
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      You’re absolutely correct. I use a SATA SSD with a PATA-SATA adapter in my Compaq Evo D510 (desktop). Like you say, the bus doesn’t change the seek time one bit. And SSDs spend more time doing random I/O than they spend doing sustained, full-speed reads, and we’re still at least 3 months away from drives that can deliver more than 133 MB/sec doing random I/O.

      How much difference does it really make? I had to reboot the Evo last night due to a power failure. It booted XP in less than 30 seconds. Seriously, if you turn your back, you miss the XP splash screen. And it’s an old build of XP that I’ve been using for 3 years, copied over from the previous drive. No Nlite or other sneaky tricks involved.

      So, yes, an SSD even on an old PATA bus does a lot of good. To prove the point, Runcore will set up exhibits at computer shows with old laptops upgraded with their drives and let people use them. I’ll bet they move a lot of drives that way.

  • January 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm
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    I think your Firefox link has the code to run truncated. It should be:

    Components.classes[“@mozilla.org/browser/nav-history-service;1”].getService(Components.interfaces.nsPIPlacesDatabase).DBConnection.executeSimpleSQL(“VACUUM”)

    The “VACUUM”) part is missing.

    Cheers

    • January 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm
      Permalink

      When you display the code in the post, it truncates, but when you copy and paste into the console, the missing part shows up. I couldn’t figure out a way to make it both display properly and work properly when you copy and paste. So I opted for the latter.

      Thanks.

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